You awake on a remote planet. Your ship is smoking in a crater a few feet away, broken but not beyond repair. Survival should be the first order of the day but there’s a stunning vista of yellow trees and red mountains all melting off into an emerald green sky.
You catch your breath. Ho-lee shit.
Welcome to No Man’s Sky, the latest game that aims to offer a near-infinite open universe to explore. In fact, the sheer scale and ambition of No Man’s Sky has managed to set the hype machine in overdrive, so much so developer Hello Games received death threats when it was announced that the game would be delayed by a couple of weeks.
Everyone’s adventure begins this way. Stranded on random planet on the edge of the galaxy, there’s no galactic breakdown service. All you have is your ship, your exosuit and the multi-tool which fills the role of mining laser, weapon and scanner all in one. And these are the tools that will help you gear up and explore the wonderful, procedurally-generated universe that makers Hello Games have laid out for you.
No Man’s Sky does things very differently from other games. While most have libraries of artwork and pre-mapped locations, NMS creates everything using maths. (And if if the word ‘maths’ immediately makes you want to fall asleep, have no fear. The maths bit happens in the background.)
Each star system and planet you visit rolls out before you, created by the game as you go by a rather magnificent piece of code. This means that when I say you begin on a random planet you do just that. This translates into a completely unique experience for everyone who loads up the game. It is true exploration and not even the team at Hello Games know what you’ll meet out there.
Even the music is generated by the game from a pool of pitch-perfect audio and algorithms created by British post-rock outfit 65daysofstatic adding some impressive weight to your interstellar encounters.
There are pillars the game is built around. There are alien races (four by my count, plus a robotic race called the Sentinels) with their own cultures and histories that you can meet, interact with and learn more about. And then there’s the main mission - follow the path laid out for you to the centre of the galaxy to see what lies in wait for you there. These pillars are more of a guide pointing you in a new direction every so often rather than being the defining characteristics of your adventures.
In the true spirit of the exploration games that inspired it - the 1986 classic Elite being at the forefront - you don’t have to follow any set path to the centre of the galaxy. There are options aplenty in a galaxy of 18 quadrillion planets.
You can collect resources, mining them on planets and asteroids to trade.
You could become an interstellar archaeologist, exploring planets in search of the ruins, monoliths and standing stones littering each planet. (They provide clues to the history of whichever race occupies that star system, along with teaching you a little bit of their language.)
You can even become a botanist or zoologist, cataloging the plants and animals on each planet and uploading the data to the game’s shared servers. You can even name the creatures, plants, planets and locations you find before uploading.
Or… for those of us who don’t come to games to collect plants and be cosmic gardeners, you can just smash shit up.
You can loot freighters in space, for instance – but even if you don’t go looking for trouble there are a bunch of nasty bloody aliens out there that will attack you while you’re making your way between planets.
The Sentinels, for example, act like dicks. They don’t like you swanning around like you own the place and will think nothing of picking a fight. Luckily you can upgrade your multi-tool with additional weapons to give you an edge against them and any other aggressive wildlife lurking around. There’s also a myriad of other upgrades available for your exosuit and ship as well to help you adapt to whatever trials this vast universe has in store.
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This is the biggest sandbox that you’ll find in gaming. It’s not quite as deep as Minecraft, as focused as Skyrim or as purple-dildo-wieldingly deviant as Saint’s Row, but it has incredible beauty and the knowledge that the things that you are seeing are yours alone. Every single player who loads up No Man’s Sky will see unique planets with their own crazy wildlife and stunning scenery. The real joy here is in exploring new places, finding and sharing some of the most fantastical scenery.
And if you get bored with a planet? Jump into your ship and piss off to another planet altogether, swing by a space station, jump to another star system or indulge in a quick bit of space piracy (NB: not a sexual euphemism). The choice is yours.
No Man’s Sky is every bit as big, beautiful and magnificently open-ended as the hype suggested. Go on dive in. Get lost in space. You won’t regret it.
No Man’s Sky is out now on PC and PS4.